Seeing out loud

A blog of illustrations & ideas by Catherine Stones

A tribute to Autumn

autumn-birdAutumn is a wonderful time of year and there are certainly many writers who have written beautiful words about it:

“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower”  – Albert Camus

“Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking successive autumns” – George Eliot

“No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace as I have seen in one autumnal face” – John Donne

“Autumn…the year’s last, loveliest smile” – William Cullen Bryant

“Autumn carries more gold in its pocket than all the other seasons” – Jim Bishop.

My Autumn is joyous too, inspired by the words of my mother when she was a child seeing a chicken being plucked: “Oh! The chicken is losing all it’s leaves!”. My bird’s lost leaves keep winter safe until it’s ready to hatch.

Terrifying Toys

A recent visit to the Toy Museum at Brighton, a little place built into the railway arches, threw up all kinds of wonderful and macabre toys amongst the Hornby railway sets. I never liked dolls at all when I was little (and my equally tom-boy sister used to fill her doll pram with soil and use it as a wheel barrow) but I appreciate them much more now as objects of terror rather than of nurture. Here are images from a sinister cabinet of dolls.

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Other highlights in the museum was a beautiful box full of jointed Alice in Wonderland Characters. It was unclear what they were for but they featured every character from both books and I particularly like the way they are displayed interacting with each other. Another highlight was the Punch and Judy cabinet where an unusually primitive crocodile lurks at the front. I love the way they’ve been arranged as if they were posing for a family photograph, as if a hanged man was an everyday occurrence. Punch looks particularly calm and proud.

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water-puppets The Brighton Art Gallery and Museum also had a fascinating gallery about performance and puppetry where, again, Punch and Judy featured. It had a particularly great set of Vietnamese Water Puppets (pictured here) – I’ve been lucky enough to see more of these in the Taipei Puppet Museum actually in the water.

It’s not exactly clear why life-like dolls are so sinister though there have been attempts to account for it by the ‘Uncanny Valley‘ theory used in robotics. The theory explains that once faces and movements become just too lifelike they evoke all kinds of innate fears in us such as fear of being replaced. How amazing that extremes of realism should provoke extremes of imagination. For me, I really like to see objects that disturb as it’s a ‘safe’ fear – they’re behind glass after all. There’s a real beauty to all these figures, beauty found in the textured, flaky paint and the crude sculpting that can’t be found elsewhere so the Toy Museum is a bit of gem in my view. Just don’t make me go there alone at night time…

Back on the rails

derailedBy far the best thing about using Twitter has been the discovery of this wonderful site: http://www.brainpickings.org. It’s written by journalist Maria Popova and contains many wonderful and thoughtful articles about the world of creativity and of creative people. I use it when I need a pick me up, something to put my mind back on the rails as it wanders off course (frequently!).

Here’s a wonderful quote from Brainpickings by the painter Agnes Martin on process:

“You’re permanently derailed. It’s through discipline and tremendous disappointment and failure that you arrive at what it is you must paint. For months, the first paintings don’t mean anything – nothing. But you have to keep going, despite all kinds of disappointment….I think that everyone is on his own line. I think that after you’ve made one step, the next step reveals itself…and I do believe we unfold out of ourselves and we do what we are born to do sooner or later, anyway”.

One more source of inspiration at the moment comes from the exciting build up to a trip to San Francisco and trying to find some work by Margaret Kilgallen, though I doubt I’ll make it to the railroad tracks where most of her ‘graffiti’ still remains. The few quotes left by Kilgallen are more optimistic than Agnes Martin’s but are, in essence, the same – on work she says just to trust the work – “If you trust that you put in the time to do the work, then the work will happen and you’ll figure out the answers”. Reassuring words indeed from two great women to keep me firmly back on track  – full steam ahead.

Graffiti goes up in the world

roof-imageHave you ever run cheekily across wet cement or pressed your hand into soft sand? It seems irresistible to want to leave your mark and it appears that we’re not the only ones. 219 footprints and hand impressions have been discovered in the lead roof tiles during restoration work on the tower at St Margaret’s Church in Wetton, Derbyshire. They covered a period from 1781-1913 and their ‘story’ is proudly shown in the church if you visit today.

The preservations include this wonderful map (cropped here) of where the hand and foot prints were found. It looks like dance notation  – as if the roofers were actually dancing, not roofing, for a living. It’s fascinating to see where the feet overlap as roofer after roofer tried to find his little bit of space. The marks of the feet help historians to understand map-of-rooffashions of the time and the carved initials (see shots below) help them to locate the local roofers in the graveyard of the church. The style of the hands and feet are all quite similar – pointy shoes and wide-set hands. They look like hands that have worked hard. The shapes made are beautifully naïve and the text accompanying the display in the church ponders over the role of the common motif of the heart in the sole of the shoe – perhaps the graffiti was an ode to a loved one?

Interestingly, the current show at Tate Britain ‘British Folk Art’ features enormous leather shoes (two of which can be seen here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/luxury/art/38499/folk-art-comes-full-circle-at-tate-britain.html). One shoe in the show (there are no pairs as they were designed as in-shop promotions) is stood high on perspex so we can look at the beautiful sole underneath and there, similar to the ones made at Wetton, are patterns of hearts and of rough studs around the perimeter. It seems then that the heart was a traditional design on the sole of the shoe -we left signs of affection everywhere we walked and our hearts helped us grip the land.

hand1I’m also reminded when I look at the marks, carefully punched into the lead with roofing tools, how determined the roofers were to leave something behind that only fellow roofers could see – so different to today’s world of seemingly sharing everything with everybody.

It’s also a lovely gesture to include just hands and feet. Hands stand for the things we make and the people we hold close. Feet represent where we go, our movements in the world. So both shapes are symbolic of something deeper than just graffiti, to me at least.

I love accidental discoveries like this – a country walk revealed more than muddy footprints that day. They leave a greater testimony to life than the graveyard they look down on and I’m so grateful for opening that church door and stepping inside.

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Some cracking pottery

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A trip to the amazing Heraklion Archeological Museum in Crete a few days ago dug up some visual wonders for me.

Firstly, there’s the wonderful early Minoan ‘Poppy’ Goddesses with arms upraised as if they are all in agreement. Notice how the figures are encased (feet sticking out of a cylindrical shape). Perhaps their goddess status was only occasional and as I was looking at them they reminded me of the giant dancing ‘puppets‘ that spin around the crowded streets of Spain during a Festival . At the end of the night the Goddess takes off the hard casing, lowers her tired arms and enjoys some Cretan wine with Zeus and a few other friends. They are called ‘Poppy’ Goddesses since they normally feature opium seeds in their headdress (a symbol of sleep or death) so perhaps they are enjoying more than wine on their time off.

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Earlier goddesses had an easier time of it – arms tightly folded. These ladies give nothing away. I love them because of that mysteriousness.

The museum is full of curiosities . Very little is labelled so you’re left to wonder as to their function. They had an amazing collection of ‘jugs’ one of which is this bereavement vessel which was found in a child’s grave – the facial expression is meant to be one of a mourning mother.
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Where Minoan Art really comes into its own though is in its decorative pottery. They took such care and attention over the drawing quality and the vibrant patterning is just astonishing. I loved the octopus motif that occurred over and over again – the eyes give away a lightheartedness that is found in many of the shapes/animals they used.

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Strange how so much of the work in the museum is amazingly fresh-faced despite being more than 3000 years old. And will it still thrill in another 3000 years? As the Poppy Goddess does, I’d raise both hands in agreement – absolutely.

“Pull up a chair”

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I’ve been spending time working on a slightly different project lately, one which has involved only the creative work of others – LGBT asylum seekers. It’s an art project about belonging – where do you feel that you ‘fit in’ and it’s a project about chairs – a symbol of support, belonging and rest. I asked LGBT asylum seekers and refugees about where they felt they belonged and asked them to express themselves through words/pictures painted or montaged onto wooden chairs.

The situation in their home countries is grim to say the least. 4 of the 12 participants come from Uganda. The situation there is appalling at the moment. All the participants have fled their countries in fear of further torture, rape or death threats.

The chairs however are fascinating and beautiful and can be seen on the project website here. They reflect issues of imposed housing (and the fear incited by living with people from countries where homosexuality is a crime), church inclusion and transformative journeys. To accompany the chairs I also created some illustrations to express togetherness and to reflect on the mixture of positive and negative words used. Slices of chairs were used in the first image to represent their diverse personalities coming together to form one supportive system.

It’s been a privilege meeting the participants and working with their work, to present it well and to learn from it though it’s an emotionally laden project. On the day of the Leeds workshop Reza found out he’d been granted asylum (with a big beaming grin on his face). Though Orasha, last week was put into detention and faces the prospect of returning to being at risk in Jamaica. Nadine’s under threat of being returned to Cameroon and Jacqueline’s case is on-going (hence her request to prop her chair up on one side to make it feel unstable).

Whilst the UK Home Office have to be discerning, the current situation is one of default disbelief. How do you prove you are gay? I met a woman the other day from Nigeria who had been granted asylum in just 6 days  – her story must have been strong and well evidenced. For others, they flee their countries without medical evidence and dare not approach the police for support – there are dreadful stories of ‘correctional rape’ even by police officers in Uganda. There must be better ways to support vulnerable people in danger though and I’m sure we could do more to help – sign petitions, write letters, offer money or volunteer time. I worked with two wonderful charities on this project (reachOUT and LISG). There are other places too you can offer support such as http://nogoingback.org.uk/.

Sadly, it’s not always easy. On Sunday the chair pictures were shown during an evening about LGBT asylum seekers – films were shown and Orasha’s mother spoke emotionally about her worries about her son. The organiser received threats from a ‘far right group’ if she went ahead with the evening which she still thankfully did. Whilst the extreme laws of Uganda might be difficult to change we can at least do our best to never give in to ignorant threats and to use our votes wisely.

The chair pictures are currently on show in Leeds Central Library for the rest of this week  –  Refugee Week 2014.

Shut down and Restart

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Whilst the computer gives us a lot of creative freedom, unlocking lots of possibilities, it also manages to surreptitiously shackle us at the same time. I’ve been taking some time off the screen lately and instead have been enjoying the freedoms of montage, of monoprinting and of uninterrupted play. Here are some fruits of the playtime for no other reason but to encourage the creation of your own tools rather than the use of Adobe’s.
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Made Mermaid

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On a recent visit to Hull’s Maritime Museum (in my home town) I found this handsome fellow or is it a pretty maid? When x-rayed it turns out not to be a mermaid at all but is part-monkey skull with ivory teeth and glass eyes, part fish tail and part wire. In the 1820’s a similar beautiful ‘mermaid’ toured Beverley near Hull, much to the amazement of the flocking crowds. According to the museum the earliest fake mermaid dates back to the sixteenth century and by the eighteenth century there was real (fake) mermaid mania! What I particularly loved about seeing this mermaid was how different it was to the mermaids/sirens I’d just seen (in the Feren’s Art Gallery not in the marina!). Ulysses and the Sirens is a beautiful painting and the sirens in it are seductive and beautiful. It’s a relief that Herbert James Draper used his imagination and didn’t cross Queen Victoria Square to see these examples.

In reaction to the visit, my mermaid constructs herself – cutting herself with a razor clam and sewing herself up with fishing wire.  She stitches herself up as well as us. Perhaps real mermaids faked themselves to keep their secret safe and pulled such horrible expressions above so that we wouldn’t come looking for them?  My mermaid is smart too – she keeps her own collection of fish in her tail which she uses to keep her modesty. She’s clearly a much harder catch than Draper’s sirens and probably just as deadly.

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An Outing for ‘Coming Out Stories’

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I’ve not blogged for a while because I’m currently knee deep in illustrating women’s ‘coming out’ stories – a project that I’ve wanted to do for years and have finally given myself permission to do. The project is called ‘Oh, but you wear lipstick’ (a homage to a ‘one liner’ a mother said to her daughter in response to the coming out moment). The project is not easy and continues to be a fascinating challenge, one which should accompany me for most of this year.

The project involves interviewing gay women (mostly people I don’t know – amazingly generous women in the U.S., Venezuela and the UK so far) and then visually representing an aspect of their coming out story. The plan is to create a series of at least 15 pictures, so one picture might work on its own but it also has to work as a set. One way I’ve done that is to set a size (a fairly large size of 70x100cm) for each picture and I’ve also created a set of common characters – one ‘mother’ is used for every mother in every story. Also there is a need to respect each story and its diversity (and wow, are they diverse!) – both in terms of adding a concept and retaining original words the women have recounted. So yes, it’s difficult and at the moment it’s difficult to think of anything else!

What is really wonderful is the opportunity to share the first three stories (the image above is a detail from one of the visual stories) with a new audience at Leeds City Art Gallery on the 22nd February. I’m giving a talk about the project and showing images as part of the ‘Queer Culture Project’, a new project to engage the LGBT community with art and creative activity in Leeds.

So my images get their first outing, as do three women’s stories. If you’re in Leeds and are interested then please come along (coming out is optional!).

The muddle and mystery of ‘misfits’

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20131221-150751.jpgHere are the results of a matching card game called ‘Misfits’ from the 1960’s that I recently played with friends. Scoring is only achieved if you can match both legs, allowing endless odd combinations above the waist line. It’s interesting to note the lack of women (except for a token ‘exotic’ woman from honolulu) and the controversial representation of a black character, though you could say that no one fairs very well – they’re a motley crew.

More broadly the game also reminds us of how random and accidental our own characters are. We’re all misfits in some ways and our parts can change, sometimes matching harmoniously with one another and other times causing discordance, depending on the hand we’re dealt at the time. Virginia Woolf in Orlando says the most wonderful thing about nature and unpredictability:

“Nature, who has played so many queer tricks upon us, making us so unequally of clay and diamonds, of rainbow and granite, and stuffed them into a case, often of the most incongruous, for the poet has a butcher’s face and the butcher a poet’s; nature, who delights in muddle and mystery, so that even now (the first of November, 1927) we know not why we go upstairs, or why we come down again, our most daily movements are like the passage of a ship on an unknown sea, and the sailors at the mast-head ask, pointing their glasses to the horizon: Is there land or is there none? to which, if we are prophets, we make answer “Yes”; if we are truthful we say “No”; nature, who has so much to answer for besides the perhaps unwieldy length of this sentence, has further complicated her task and added to our confusion by providing not only a perfect ragbag of odds and ends within us—a piece of a policeman’s trousers lying cheek by jowl with Queen Alexandra’s wedding veil—but has contrived that the whole assortment shall be lightly stitched together by a single thread. Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after.”

The unpredictability of the game, and of life, is what keeps us coming back for more, surely. With Christmas just 3 days away I hope there is game playing opportunities a-plenty so here’s to reshuffling the pack, dealing the hand and making the best of what we have and what comes next.

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